Two roads diverged in a yellow wood...

We’re Outta Here! Midshipmen, S’mores, and the Final Drive

On Sunday, October 17, we were on the road by 7:15 AM for a long drive. We started east on TN-100 to Parsons, then hit US-412 and a little bit of “stale” road… you know Mr. Wonderful (MW) didn’t like that…all the way past Columbia. Then we zig-zagged a little bit on county roads and ended up passing through Bell Buckle VERY SLOWLY. Turns out that we hit town on the weekend of the annual Bell Buckle Webb Art and Craft Festival. Beyond any turn-off before we realized, we just turtled right through the middle of the crowds. There were people and cars everywhere. From what we could see, it looked like the festival spread out all over town, and lots of folks turned their yards into pay parking lots. I’d definitely be interested in coming back, but MW not so much. If you ever check it out, plan on a LOT of walking. Once we made it through the masses, we continued east to McMinnville, where we hit TN-8 southeast across the Cumberland Plateau to US-127 north along the Sequatchie River. At Pikeville, we turned southeast to Dayton, then over to Decatur where we headed northeast to Hornsby Hollow Campground. As we approached our destination for the next week, we began seeing the evacuation route signs for the Watts Bar Nuclear Power Plant. I’m not all that sure running would help. Seems like the unlikely scenario would require the old standby solution…bend way over and kiss your a** goodbye. 🙂

Although we were getting close to the barn, we had this one last stop to make, and we’d been looking forward to it…the Naval Academy Alumni Association RV Chapter Watts Bar Come Around! Wow…that’s a mouthful! We were active in the local alumni associations in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and Greensboro, North Carolina for many years. In fact, I spent my 50th birthday watching Navy whup Army’s collective butts with the Greensboro alum. (Navy is ahead in the venerable contest with 61 wins to Army’s 53, and 7 ties. Go NAVY! Beat ARMY!) We found this group a while back, but this is the first time we’ve been in the right part of the country to make a come-around. They are all over, so if you are a Naval Academy grad and RVer, they’d love to have you. (Message me for info.) After getting Petunia all settled in, I took a walk around the park and ran into John and Eileen Madaio and then Lynne Connors and Mari McIlwain. I was very flattered when John recognized my name from this blog.

Monday morning dawned foggy, but it burned off before too long. I think the folks who previously occupied our site had been feeding the ducks in the morning, because we had a little cadre of three show up first thing. We thought opening the door would send them running, but they hung out right there with us as we sat outside and enjoyed the morning. Later we headed over to nearby Decatur, Tennessee, and found lunch at the Decatur Family Diner where MW went for a breakfast omelet and I had the catfish. Yum! The place was packed with locals, so they must think so, too. Next we dropped off the battery cores (from the changeout last week) at Auto Zone and popped into the Piggly Wiggly for a few supplies. On the way back we found an overlook for the Watts Bar Dam and could see the cooling towers across the river.

Back at the campground, we met with the alumni group for happy hour followed by pizza, courtesy of the firsties (gathering planners). It is a fun crowd of around 50 part- and full-time RVers, which is more than we expected. I was excited to finally meet Nita and Jack Parry. We’ve been messaging back and forth for quite a while and crossed paths several times in the midwest, missing each other by just a day or two. It is always nice to be able to put a face to a name. They were very nice, too, but I expected that. The evening was capped off with jokes, stories, and s’mores around the campfire.

Tuesday morning was also foggy on the lake. We started the day with breakfast at the pavilion…you just have to like a group that gathers around food and drink! Jim Roberts, the original breakfast coordinator, fell ill at the come around the previous week, so a crew of volunteers stepped in to run his show. It was delicious, and the 6 POUNDS of bacon did not go to waste! LOL

After breakfast, there was a Chapter Business meeting followed by the auction. Everyone donated items, with the money benefiting the Chapter. The bourbon and emergency radio we added were hits, and we came away with caramel popcorn, emergency water containers, and a gift for someone for Christmas. There were a lot of laughs and good-natured ribbing, too. Later in the evening we gathered again for appetizers. There was also a Flag Retirement Ceremony around the campfire that night.

Wednesday morning we headed out with the second group to go take a tour of the local General Shale Brick plant. I’ve gotta say, it was pretty cool. MW and I love factory and manufacturing tours and take them whenever we can. Of course, once his industrial engineering brain takes over, he could stay for the whole day. LOL. I had no idea that bricks are really just dirt (shale and/or clay) with a little water added. So how does it all work? A few miles down the road trucks are loaded with dirt that is transported to the plant and dumped into a large holding area so that it can dry out somewhat. When the humidity is right, the dirt is brought in and the machines take over. There are several processes available to make brick, but General Shale uses the stiff mud or extrusion method. The mixture is forced through a machine that compresses it at high pressure twice, then cuts off the excess to create a long brick column with the holes already formed. The column then runs through a texture and paint area, depending on the desired outcome. Next comes a cut into 12′ columns, before entering the coolest part…the brick robot. This giant machine cuts the column into actual bricks, then stacks them to move down the line. Next comes three different drying rooms with progressively warmer temperatures, followed by the LOOONNNNGGGGG kiln which reaches a high of about 1900 degrees. Standing beside it you could feel the heat off of the walls. It must get pretty hot in that building in the summer! Coming out the other side, the bricks are 1/2 to 1 inch smaller all the way around. Throughout this process, the stacks are moved around on huge trolleys automatically. It really is impressive. After cooling and wrapping, the stacks are taken to the yard to await shipping. Thanks to our firsties, Jim and Lynne Connors, we were given a terrific tour filled with information.

Brick Robots at Work

Next MW and I headed over to Winstead’s American Grill, where we both had a quick lunch of fish and chips (so-so). Then it was across the street to the Spring City Laundry to take care of our chores. One of the guys from the Navy group said I’m pretty tough on laundromats in this blog, and he was right! A place where people are supposed to bring their clothes, their sheets, their towels, etc., should look and feel CLEAN! If a laundromat owner can’t do that, he or she should just throw in the towel (pun intended). In this case, there was a LOT to dislike, so I’ll just say DON’T GO. (If you are in the area and need a laundromat, head over to the Laundry Barn in Dayton. It will be worth the drive.) If you’d like to see the complete rant review of this place, check that out here. Honestly, we should have driven to Dayton ourselves, but we had things on the schedule for later. We did the best we could under the circumstances and headed back for the park. There has been paving work on TN-304 just outside of Hornsby Hollow Campground since we arrived, with trucks and equipment, plus delays. We passed a dump truck coming opposite direction there, and smack…windshield broken. Not a chip, but three cracks that just kept growing. The rock must have been pretty large, too, because I caught a glimpse of it in my peripheral and flinched just as it hit. Bummer!! Thankfully, it was right near the top of the glass, or it might have come through. Later that evening we walked back down to the pavilion for happy hour, a potluck dinner, and more jokes, stories, and s’mores around the campfire.

I got an early start Thursday on some work, then we headed out to look at some cows and cut the cheese…really. Our destination was Sweetwater Valley Farm in Philadelphia, Tennessee. This piece of Tennessee heaven became a dairy farm in 1917 and is still going strong today. There have been several proprietors over the last 100 years, but John and Celia Harrison have owned a bit of it since 1987 and bought it outright in 1992. It is truly a family business with two of their grown children helping manage the workload, and a load it is. Along with the almost 2,000 cow dairy, the property has some beef cows, feeder crops, a cheese factory, a gift shop, an online store, and the Seed to Sandwich Cafe. Whew! That’s a LOT! Our tour started in the gift shop, which has a variety of decorative stuff, t-shirts, local products, and of course, cheese. From there we headed out to have a cow visit. One woman in our group remarked, as we walked towards the barn, that it smelled strong. Not sure how she expected to be in the midst of hundreds of cows and not smell cow poo, but it really wasn’t that bad. There are several semi-automated milking barns in the operation, where a person cleans the cow and places the cups on the teats. The piece de resistance here, though, is the Red Cow Barn, equipped with eight Lely milking robots The facility is very large and houses hundreds of cows divided into four sections, each with two robotic milkers. There the cows eat, sleep, ruminate (chew their cud), and when the cow decides it’s time, get milked. It works like this. 1) The cow decides the time has come.. (If you’ve ever had a baby, you understand this completely. For the rest of you, things get full, heavy, and uncomfortable.) 2) She goes to the entry gate for the robotic milker. 3) When the gate opens, she walks in. 4) The machine cleans and sanitizes her underside and udders. 5) A laser guides the cups onto all four udders. 6) The cup drops off of each udder as it senses milking is done. 7) The front gate opens and the cow exits the milker. 8) The milk is tested before sending it to the larger tanks, which could identify problems with her health or if she is in heat, at which point she would be bred. (Our guide said someone asked him where they keep the bulls. He said “in the refrigerator in little glass tubes”.) While in the milker, the cow is contentedly chowing on some special feed that is like cow cookies. Apparently it’s very good, because there are cows that try to cheat the system and get milked more often for snacks. The robot is pretty slick, though, and knows it isn’t the right time. How? Each cow is fitted with a large necklace that tracks where they are, how often they get milked, and how many times they chew. If anything is off, the computer alerts the manager to check for possible illness or other issues that might keep her from eating properly. The system even keeps track of itself, and calls folks if anything stops working. Otherwise, except for the short time each day that it is down for cleaning, it runs constantly. It really was quite amazing. After watching for a while, we went to the restaurant for lunch. Specializing in a variety of grilled cheese sandwiches and shakes, we both had The Big Cheese, made with their own sharp cheddar cheese plus local bacon, bread and butter pickles, and tomato on sour dough. MW really liked it, but I could have done without the pickles. The cheese was awesome, though. Before heading back to Petunia, we did a little shopping, and MW picked up several different cheeses to try later.

Getting Milked

Back at the campground, our daily visitors returned while we were enjoying the weather. Later we headed down to the pavilion for happy hour, followed by a delicious barbecue dinner, music, and dancing. There might have been a little tipple here and there, but who knows for sure. “wink, wink”

SIDE NOTE: Near the sidewalk on the way down to the pavilion I happened to look up and saw lots of twinkling lights. It was perplexing, because they started about half-way up and went higher…beautiful, bluish-green, sparkles. The tree was at the rear of a long-term occupied campsite right on the edge of the water. HOW. DID. THEY. GET. THERE???? A cherry picker couldn’t get back there…too high for a ladder…WHAT???? Before you think I’m crazy, I pointed them out to both MW and Hoot Wade. Finally, the RV owner showed up, so of course, I asked how the lights were strung up so high. He laughed and said they weren’t lights at all, but a projection from a little machine on the ground. You know I’m going to find one of those!! LOL

Friday it was time to buckle down and get a little work and writing done. I confess that I actually stayed in my pajamas until mid-afternoon, too. Heaven!! That was interrupted later when our new neighbors showed up. As you probably know by now, our favorite part of RVing is enjoying the peace and quiet of the outdoors and listening to the night birds. After several years of doing this, though, we realize that other people have a different view. Plus, like this come around, there are occasionally times when we are adding to the fray (but NOT during quiet hours). Usually, unless it is well after quiet hours have begun, we live and let live. This time, though, was an exception. One of the men opened his truck windows and turned on the stereo, which he had set up with a very strong, low, bass through what sounded like busted speakers about 6′ from the side of our RV. Although the music wasn’t that loud, no kidding…our windows were rattling from the beat! I was trying to write, and the bummmm, bummmm, bummmm was terribly distracting. He probably listens to it that way all the time and didn’t even realize the effect. In any case, he was very nice when I asked him about adjusting the bass. Later we headed down to the group campfire for the final night of stories, jokes, and s’mores. I think the campfire evenings were my favorite thing at the come around.

On the drive over to Sweetwater Valley Farm, we passed through the town of Sweetwater. It looked like a place worth visiting on its own, so that was our destination on Saturday morning. This town of around 6,300 folks was founded along Sweetwater Creek in the 1850s, so named for the locals description of the area springs. Snuggled in the foothills of the Smokies, the historic downtown hosts a variety of shops to explore. There is quite a bit to see in the area, too. One of the local attractions on our list for a later date is Craighead Caverns and the Lost Sea, which is the largest underground lake in the country. We started with lunch at Hunter’s Bakery & Cafe for burgers that were hand-pattied and delicious. They also had quite a bit to offer in the bakery case, but we resisted that urge. Next we walked around town a little bit and spent some time at the Visitor’s Center talking to a nice, young couple. They gave us information about the local area and directions, and told us that the local creamery had “the best ice cream in the WORLD!” High praise, indeed, but is it Blue Bell??

Our next stop was Towns Toffee, where we met Sarah Loebner, the owner. She bought a building and started a small business in small town America in 2020!! That right there is what they call chutzpah. Bravo! While Covid kept foot traffic low at first, Sarah felt that it spurred internet sales, which are now about 70% of her overall business. She gave us a tour of the operation, which specializes in artisan toffee and also has other, mostly local, items in the gift shop. We thoroughly enjoyed the visit and purchased a few gift items, too. Be sure to check the place out when you pass through.

Heading back through downtown, we stopped to walk through the Veteran’s Memorial and check out that ice cream. I mean, who can really resist the “best in the WORLD”? Sweetwater Creamery is another business that took the leap in 2020. Amazing! Owners, Mike and Karla, built out the space early in the year, before the word Covid rang the death knell on a lot of small businesses. Already invested, their only choice was to steam ahead. Health and other issues added complexity to their first year, but they made it to the anniversary celebration in June and are chugging on. While we were there, lots of people came and went, which is definitely a good sign. Oh, and the ice cream is darned good. All of the flavors (somewhere around 40 at any given time) are designed by Mike with the freshest, all-natural ingredients and no colorings. I had pistachio and banana cream pie…yum, yum, yum! MW had a mocha espresso chip shake, which he enjoyed immensely. They also sell their own branded sodas. MW took a root beer home with him that was really good. Honestly, Sweetwater Creamery is a must if you are in the area. Plus, I don’t want to live in a world where Walmart is the only option, so BUY LOCAL, folks!

INTERESTING SIDE NOTE: Ladies, whether you realized it or not, a Republican connected to Sweetwater, Tennessee, completely changed your life. Harry T. Burn, who practiced law in town from 1927 to 1951, was the youngest member of the Tennessee legislature when he was elected in 1918. During his term, the twenty-two year old was faced with a big, contentious issue…women’s suffrage. Congress proposed the 19th Amendment in June of 1919, and thirty-six states (of forty-eight at the time) had to ratify the change before it could become law. By August of 1920, when Tennessee called a special session to vote, thirty-five states were already on board. Burn’s vote was needed to tip the scales on the deadlocked issue. He planned to vote for, but was receiving immense pressure to change his mind, when he received a letter from his mother. After much wrangling in the chamber, his vote tipped the scales and ratified the Amendment. He faced some backlash, but was able to overcome, and served in a variety of public positions until 1970. There is a personal statement from Burn in the Tennessee House Journal…”I knew that a mother’s advice is always safest for a boy to follow, and my mother wanted me to vote for ratification.” Good boy!

Done exploring, we stopped off at the grocery store on our way back to the campground. For the last day of the Naval Academy Alumni Association RV Chapter Come Around, they pulled out all the stops. The evening started with early happy hour, followed by nuclear stew and chili cheese dogs. Then we carpooled with Scott Goodson over to the home of our Firsties, Jim and Lynne Connors, for the grand finale. First was a release of balloon lanterns in honor of our two retiring members, Bob and Maryjane Metcalf. That was followed by an awesome fireworks show. I found a “fireworks” setting on my camera, too!

Although the week had been full of a lot more gathering than we are used to, we really enjoyed meeting everyone and putting faces to names. A lot of these folks were (and some still are) the cream of the crop in the service and private industry, and it was really interesting hearing their stories and getting to know them just a little. And despite what I’d heard in my Washington days, Admirals apparently aren’t all a**holes. LOL. Jim and Lynne did a fabulous job of coordinating and making it look easy. (No one is fooled, though!) There are definitely more come arounds in our future.

Hornsby Hollow Campground is very well-kept and privately managed on property owned by the Tennessee Valley Authority. Situated on Watts Bar Lake, campers can enjoy the full range of water activities. Amenities include a boat ramp, boat slips for campers, two beaches, sand volleyball court, playground, basketball court, picnic areas, a pavilion, a short walking/bike trail, paddle board/canoe/kayak rentals, wifi area, laundromat, propane fill station, and camp store. The campground is laid out in two sections with 109 lake front/view, electric (30- or 50-amp) and water sites. They do allow season-long rentals, and offer pump-out services in addition to the dump station. Most sites are well-spaced and angled to provide good lake views. The three bathhouses were very clean, although the circle we were on had only one with one shower each for male and female to cover 57 sites. (A couple of times MW walked to the other loop.) Cell signal and over-the-air TV were great, and there was no traffic noise. All-in-all, it’s a really nice park and one of the few private ones we’ve been to that we really liked. For this visit in October of 2021, we paid $260 for 7 nights. (With all of the come around activity, I completely forgot to get pics. This is all I have. Sorry!)

Sunday morning I was dragging when MW woke me at 5:30 AM. The night before our neighbors across the street, who have a seasonal setup and came in on Friday, were sitting outside talking until late. It wasn’t too bad, except for the period when a woman was talking very loudly about something that clearly ticked her off. Well, that and the occasional “woo hoo” and loud laughter that jerked us awake. I waited until more than an hour after quiet hours began, then walked over and asked them to keep it down. One of the guys said “uh, oh” when he saw this old woman approaching in a bathrobe, but they were very nice. It never hurts to ask. After dumping and fixing a minor snafu with our hose storage tube, we were on the road and headed northeast by 7 AM. The first 30 minutes or so were a slow go in dense fog with visibility down to “I can only see the center line” occasionally. It burned off after a little while, though, and turned into a pleasant day. Since we were so close to home, most of our northeast route was stale road, making MW a little grumpy. We stopped at a Waffle House in Oak Ridge for breakfast, then made it to the barn just before noon. Later we were treated to a gorgeous, Tennessee sunset.

So that’s it…the end of the We’re Outta Here tour…191 days, 13,000+ towing miles, 21,000+ total miles, and 24 states. Along the way we met a lot of great people and saw some amazing stuff. Now it’s time to check in with the kids and grandkids, do a little repair and maintenance work on Petunia, stock the pond, and get the driveway drainage issue fixed. I’m sure that list will grow. There will be a couple of short trips to see family, too, between now and mid to late January, when we head out again. Thank you for taking the journey with us. While we won’t be on the road for the next few weeks, look for posts about what we’ve learned in 2 years of full-time RV living and, of course, more crazy signs. Stay tuned and see you on the path!!

Talisa

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2 Comments

  1. Joy Chapman

    Talisa –
    It’s always a thrill to live vicariously through you and Drew!! You write beautifully and, more importantly, have such a wonderful journey!!

    • Talisa

      Awwww…thank you for the kind words, Joy. I really enjoy writing it and am glad you are coming along on the path. I think of you often. When we come that direction, we will have to get together.

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